The Lake

By: Roktim Bhattacharjya

Even though it was the morning after the exams Zubin woke up early. It was a few seconds before it really sunk in that he would not have to torture himself awake today. There were no formulae to revise. No chapter left for a desperate read-through in the morning. He could lie on bed and let his mind wander free. Ah the freedom of the mind. The joy of it all made him a little dizzy.

Sure he would eventually have to get off the bed and pack up all his stuff. He was going back home for the month long vacation. But that could wait a few hours without causing too much of an inconvenience. He plumped up the pillow and let his head sink in its softness. On the wall next to him the warm light of the dawn bled through the curtains over a broken window.

He had dreamed last night. He tried to remember what the dream was about and failed. All he remembered was that it was a sweet little dream. Some of the sweetness still remained like the taste of something delectable sometimes does long after the teeth have stopped chewing. But the dream itself had completely faded away. He had a feeling it was a dream he saw often. If only he could remember.

Zubin held the curtains slightly apart with a hand and peered out. From his hostel he could see a line of tall trees standing just outside the premises. He didn’t know what the trees were. They were taller than most trees around and had really large leaves. He liked looking at those trees. They looked to him like ancient trees from another age. All the view needed was a lake, a large one with the waters still as a mirror.

Zubin closed his eyes and pictured the lake. He liked lakes. There was one near his hostel. Well it was more of a pond really but to Zubin it held all the beauty of the largest lakes, if not as much water. Often times he would go and sit near the crystal clear water for hours. And a wishful mind would take him to the lake his mother would take him to when he was a child.

This was long ago. He was a little child then. He had no other memories from that time. But the lake the remembered like it was yesterday. And not without reason; his mother had passed away soon after with him not much older. He held onto that memory of her with all the tears he did not shed and anchored it in place with the smile he chose instead. A smile that mirrored his mothers he believed.

He had never been to that lake after his mother had passed away. He didn’t even know where it lay. No one even mentioned it anymore, probably worried that it would bring back memories of his mother. As if he could forget. As if he should.And he made up his mind then, lying on his bed in the thickening morning warmth, he was going to find the lake this time.

The next day he Zubin woke up late. He was at home. The bed was infinitely more comfortable. He staggered off the bed and made his way down to the dining room where his father was already seated. On the wall opposite Zubin’s father was the TV. An 18 inch bravia flat screen. And it played the local news day in and day out. As he brushed his teeth, Zubin stared at the TV absently. Some person was complaining about something. The reporter stood, microphone extended, nodding vigorously as if only he could empathize with the poor guy.

“You want tea?” his father asked, eyes still fixed on the TV screen.

“It’s ok. I’ll make some. You watch the news.”

“Hmmm… don’t put in any sugar. You can add a teaspoon to your own cup if you like”

“Okay…” Zubin went into the kitchen. It stood just beside the dining room. You could see the TV from the kitchen. Someone else was complaining about something else now. Another reporter nodded in brotherly concern.

“The cracks have been getting wider since the last earthquake. For all the money they made out of this construction I want to ask them, could they live with our blood on their hands. There are children living in this building. Could they sleep at… “

The TV was muted at this moment. The disgruntled young man went on, vigorously gesturing with his hands. The reporter understood.

“Haa Maina… ”

Maina was what his elder sister was called at home. She worked at the Union Bank in Guwahati. She was to be coming home today for the weekend. They were going to their grandparents place. They’d both missed their cousin’s birthday a week ago.

“Okay. Give me another call when you reach… bye…”

“When will she be here?” Zubin asked as he put in the tea leaves and reached for the sugar.

“Not much longer. She’s reached Shipajhar… thirty forty minutes maybe”

Zubin pulled back at the last moment as he remembered his father’s diabetes. Some of the sugar spilled onto his feet and the floor. He swept the sugar off to a corner. He’d deal with it later. He poured the tea into two cups, put some sugar in his cup, and went and sat with his father at the table facing the TV.

Forty minutes later he was still sitting there browsing through the music channels. His father had gone to pick his sister up from the station. Zubin wasn’t really seeing the TV. He was looking at it without seeing a thing. The music flowed past him without touching him.

Zubin steepled his fingers as he tried to remember if his sister was ever there at the lake with him and mother. He didn’t seem to remember her being there. That felt odd to him. Why wouldn’t she be there? He’d never thought about that before. Maybe she was there after all and had only faded out of the memory, now that it had become the only one he had of his mother. It was okay really. She was in plenty other memories. She would be here in person any moment now.

His sister was four years older to him. She surely had a clearer memory of that time. Maybe she knew where the lake was. He was wondering how he should bring out the topic of the lake when the doorbell rang. His sister was here. She greeted him immediately as he opened the door. His dad passed by with her bags, handing one to Zubin as he did so.

She looked well. She had put on some weight since he had last seen her months ago. That, somehow, made her look a happier person. His sister was a tad taller than him. She wasn’t a very tall girl though. He was the short guy. Zubin realized, as she smiled at him warmly, that he’d probably never stop being jealous of her for that.

“How were your exams?” she asked.

“I did okay…” Zubin looked around to confirm that his father was out of hearing distance. “Don’t tell dad though. I sort of gave him the idea that I aced it…”

She laughed at this. “You will not flunk it though will you?” she asked in mock concern.

“How dare you doubt my talents so…?” Zubin replied in mock disgust.

She laughed again. “Okay wait I need to show you something.” She went into her room and opened her bag. “Come here.”

Zubin stepped into the room just as she took out a little box from her bag. She opened the box and held it in front of him. “It’s for dad” she beamed.

It was a watch. Brown leather strap. White dial. “It’s beautiful…”

“It is naa?” she smiled wider. And this is for you. She held out another box in front of his face.

Zubin was surprised in spite of the fact that it should have been fairly obvious that his sister would get something for him as well. “Thanks”

He opened it to find another watch inside. A fastrack. It had a round white dial similar to the other one. The belt was black. Not quite as elegant as the Titan. Zubin didn’t care. He hadn’t ever seen a more handsome watch. “It’s perfect”

“It’s cheaper than the one I got for dad. Hope you don’t mind.”

He laughed out at this. Then he hugged her. “Thanks di.”

“Hmm… Something’s bothering you Tikla… I can tell. What is it?”

Zubin stepped back from the hug, a little surprised again. “No. Why would you say that?”

“Nothing, you just seemed to have something on your mind…”

“Well…” Zubin paused for a long while as he thought of what to say next, “there is this one thing I was thinking about.”

“Hah. I knew there was something. Tell me.”

” I was thinking about mom the other day…”

“And…?” His sister urged. She looked concerned. A little bit too concerned, Zubin thought. Her eyes held his firmly. There was a worried look in them that puzzled Zubin as he stared back.

“No no… don’t be worried…” he added smiling, trying to allay whatever fear gripped his sister so “It’s nothing serious… I was just wondering if maybe you remember the lake mom used to take me to… you know… before she passed away?”

She stood there stunned for about half a minute. Then the tears flowed, uninhibited. For a long time his sister couldn’t speak. Zubin stared at her, astonished at her reaction. “What is it? Tell me.”

His sister wiped her tears and tried to put on a smile. “Nothing. You just reminded me of mother, that’s all.” She went and sat on the bed. “I do remember going to the lake with mother. Such a peaceful place wasn’t it?”

Zubin sat down beside her. “Could you take me there?”

“I’m so sorry I don’t remember where the lake was.”

“Let’s ask dad.”

“I’ll ask him. Listen could you do me a favour?”

“What?”

“Could you please go get me a bottle of shampoo? I don’t want to use the one at home. It spoils my hair. Please.”

“Alright.” Zubin said after a moment. Then he stood up to leave but turned back at the door. “Is there something you are not telling me?”

“About what?”

Zubin stood there his eyes searching her’s. “No… nothing… I’ll go get your shampoo.”

He took his wallet and left. He was still thinking about his sister’s reaction as he walked down the stairs to the veranda but he decided to let it go. They hardly talked about mother. It was only understandable that his sudden question would startle her a bit. Just as he was closing the gates behind him on his way out he remembered that he only had around twenty rupees in his wallet. It wouldn’t be enough.

So he went back into the house to get some more. As he approached the stairs that led to his room upstairs he heard voices coming out of his sister’s room. His father and sister were talking. Something stopped Zubin from going in. Or going away for that matter. Something held his feet in place with an unbreakable bond.

Presently his father’s voice drifted out.

“…so we told him she died of an illness. He was a child when he first asked about her. What else were we supposed to tell him?”

“He’s mature now… maybe he deserves to know now.”

“But why? I don’t know how he got this memory of his mother but it comforts him. Let him keep it. You want to go tell him his mother died giving birth to him. It would break his heart.”

Outside the door Zubin’s heart shattered into a million pieces. Silently. But the dining table screeched loudly as Zubin leaned into it for support. Both his father and his sister rushed out. His sister let out a sharp gasp when he saw him lying there amongst the fallen chairs. He was still conscious. But he wouldn’t speak when she asked if he’d hurt himself. His father checked for a head injury and was relieved to find none.

They took him to a bed and made him lay down. No one spoke. There was nothing left to say. At least for the moment. Zubin closed his eyes. His sister caressed his head. For a long time there was silence. Not the nice kind. The kind that felt empty and dark. The kind that bred monsters in the frozen heart. The kind that fed them. To kill this silence she hummed a tune. And the monsters fled from the glare of her voice. And from the warmth of it Zubin’s heart thawed. And surprising everyone, most of all himself, he fell asleep.

In his slumber he dreamed. It was a dream he dreamt often. He sat with his mother by the lake. Far away beyond the trees on the horizon the sun was setting. The orange glow bled into the lake. It mesmerized him.

Zubin heard people walking up to them. He turned to see this father and his sister walking towards where they sat. He smiled at his sister. She smiled back as she sat beside him. Their father sat down next to her. The red glow of the setting sun engulfed them all in a beautiful haze.

And when Zubin had soaked in enough of the twilight haze he lay down on the wet grass. His mother softly caressed his head. And she hummed a tune. And the warmth of her voice chased away a chill Zubin didn’t know he had inside. It was the sweetest dream.

You can read more of Roktim Bhattacharjya’s writing here.

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